Incarnational Mission v Divine Incarnation! Fight?

Incarnational Mission v Divine Incarnation! Fight?

There are lots of ‘cool’ words flying around the Christian world at the moment. (When I say ‘cool’ I mean to me anyway). To others they may be silly or nonsensical but as I have a fascination for language, I find them and their usage deeply intriguing. For instance, we have ‘missional’ which is the new buzzword for a whole number of things. For some it refers to the Christian’s ‘sentness’ (another made up word) into the world in order to be salt and light. To others it’s closely tied to ‘community living’ as a group of God’s people living kingdom values together in the face of the watching world. To lots of people I know it means absolutely nothing – just another gobbledygook word invented by theologians with too much time on their hands and who much prefer to hide in a study and write a book about reaching people rather than doing any real reaching for themselves.

Another one is ‘incarnational’ which isn’t that new to be fair. That one has been around for a few years and is generally accepted (although not exclusively these days, as we shall see) to refer to Christ as he came and lived among the human race and identified with us in a very real and human sense. Missionaries historically used it to mean living among the people and getting to know them, their culture and seeking to engage with them about the faith in culturally sensitive and understandable ways. This in turns gets us into ‘contextualisation’ and so on ad infinitum….

The problem is that the word has been hijacked recently in a way that sounds plausible but makes me feel a little uncomfortable. For example, Alan Hirsch (missiologist – another cool word to describe missionary thinker!) recently wrote this:

If missional refers to our ‘sentness’ as believers/church, then incarnational shapes the way we should engage in that mission.  God came into the world in an act of profound identification not only with humanity as a whole, but with a particular group of people. That He was in the neighborhood for 30 years and no-one noticed says a lot about God and how He engages the human situation.  The Incarnation thus shows us that God speaks from within a particular culture, in ways that people can grasp, understand, and respond.  The Incarnation gives us the primary biblical model of engagement–this is how God does it and we who follow his Way should take a similar path.  Incarnational mission requires that we contextualize the Gospel in ways that honor the particular cultural and existential situations of various peoples without compromising on the mission itself.  If missional means going out (being sent) into the world, then incarnational means going deep down into a culture…

I think people misunderstand me when they think that incarnational mission does not mean that we evangelize people but just have to identify with, and love, them.  That we simply go to them and be with them.  This is clearly not the case as proclamation is a vital part of incarnational mission.

Reading between the lines I think this was in response to some criticisms that he had gone soft on ‘gospel proclamation’. I have no such concerns with Mr. Hirsch, largely becuase i am unaware of his body of writing and thought. My issue with the way these ‘cool terms’ that are being freely bandied about by ‘uber pastors‘ (skinny jeans, mochas, glasses and a pair of Toms) is that I sometimes profoundly disagree with some of the ‘reinterpretations‘ of their presuppositions. A mouthful, I know, but bear with me.

I can agree that the church is sent. Anybody with a Bible that can read Matthew 28 knows this. My issue is that I am unsure we really are being sent ‘in the same way as Jesus’. Can we really be reducing the incarnation of Christ to the role of ‘a missionary model’? Did Jesus enter into this world in order to ‘go deep’ into our culture? Did he come to hang out with us to get to know us better? Because that’s not how I am reading the Bible. The Son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost (Luke 19:10) – that’s what I’m reading. Wasn’t that his primary task? Did he need to engage in a bit of cultural homework whilst he was here to get the full picture and be able to bring the gospel home in a meaningful way?

So, for me, there is the ‘Divine incarnation’ and there is ‘incarnational mission’. When I think of  ‘incarnational mission” I am thinking of how I can engage with the people of Niddrie and live among them in a distinctly Christian way.  My reasoning behind this does not lie in Jesus’ incarnation but in the fact that I have been ‘sent’ into the world to be salt and light. So, let me be clear. I believe in incarnational, missional ministry but not out of a hermeneutical gymnastic approach to the Bible where I have to force an application out of a doctrine that I don’t believe expects me to. Jesus is not a model to follow in his incarnation but a God to worship. I don’t believe Jesus Christ came to identify with us but to mediate on our behalf.

Still chewing this one over.